Posted: Aug 06, 2004 12:00 AM

     WASHINGTON -- No bounce for Kerry. The Democrats and their pollsters will tell you this is because the electorate has already made up its mind. But if that is the case, why are they campaigning? Why have a convention in the first place? In reality, at least 10 percent of the population is undecided, and Kerry's convention appears to have gotten none of them.

     The other explanation is stylistic. Kerry rushed his speech, stepping on his applause lines. Then there was the sweat on brow and chin, not quite Nixonian lip sweat, but enough to distract.

     Hardly. The explanation that respects the intelligence of the American people is that Kerry had nothing to say. Well, one thing: Vietnam. His entire speech, the entire convention, was a celebration of his military service. The salute. The band of brothers. The Swift boat metaphors. The attribution of everything -- from religious values to foreign policy wisdom -- to Kerry's four-month stint 35 years ago.

     The problem is that the association of fitness for the presidency with military experience does not withstand five minutes of reflection. If that were the case, Lincoln would have failed as commander in chief in the Civil War, and FDR would have failed as commander in chief in World War II. By that logic, Ulysses S. Grant should have been -- as Douglas MacArthur would have been -- a great president.

     And, for that matter, Bob Dole. The most cynical moment of the four days was provided, naturally, by Bill Clinton, who reproached himself for having sat out the Vietnam War, a smug self-congratulatory way of attacking Bush and Cheney for sharing his dishonor. It was sheer Clintonian shamelessness. After all, in the 1992 campaign, he adamantly denied that he dodged the draft. And according to what Clinton says now about the centrality of military service, the 1996 election should have logically and honorably gone to Bob Dole, the Max Cleland of his time.

     The whole claim is, of course, ex post facto disingenuousness. For all his fawning imitation of John Kennedy, Kerry missed the central irony: Who was it that sent Kerry and the others into the disastrous Vietnam War if not John F. Kennedy (Navy and Marine Corps Medal), Lyndon Johnson (Silver Star) and an entire political establishment that had served in World War II and Korea?

     Yes, Vietnam service gives Kerry a credential for high office. But beyond that, what is there? His biography, as presented to the world, was this: He was born, went to Vietnam, and is now running for president. Just about his entire adult life is a 30-year void. The hagiographic film at the convention omitted his first entry into politics (his failed run for Congress in 1972, an attempt to cash in immediately on his Vietnam/antiwar service). There was no mention of the fact that his first elected office was as Michael Dukakis' lieutenant governor. And practically nothing was said about his 20 years of deeply unmemorable service in the Senate.

     The convention gave no bounce because it consisted of but two elements: Vietnam, plus attacks on the president. The press swallowed the claim that the convention, following a directive from on high, was not negative. In fact, that meant simply that Al Gore was not to repeat his charge that the Bush administration is allied with ``digital brown shirts'' and running a ``gulag.'' And that Bush was not to be attacked by name.

     But the themes were transparently negative: We are not the party that misleads you into war. We are not the party that trashes the Constitution. We are not the party that acts unilaterally. And my favorite, because of its Escher-like yogiism: We are not the party that divides the country -- as opposed to those lying, Constitution-trashing, unilateralist Republican cowboys.

     None of this is out of bounds, mind you. It is simply politically stupid. It does not work. Why? Because the political market has, as they say on Wall Street, already discounted these negatives. The people have already registered all the bad news of the last six months that has sent Bush's approval ratings plummeting.

     Four days wasted -- spent on redundant attacks on a president who has already paid politically for his sins, real and imagined. And the rest of the time spent on an excruciating selective biography, which, although centered on one truly honorable episode, tells us absolutely nothing about how President Kerry would deal with al Qaeda casing buildings in Manhattan and Washington or with the bad guys now congregated in Fallujah.

     In other words, nothing about the future. Which is what elections are about.

     Hence, no bounce.